The Tetris Effect is something that Shawn Achor uses in his book "The Happiness Advantage" to describe what influences our thinking and how we can change it.Tetris was a popular video game when Gameboy first came out a few decades ago where the purpose of the game was to match up enough blocks in a line so that the line would explode and you would get points. This is a game that many older Millennials (in our 30s now) used to play. We would play it for hours. So many hours that when you walked outside, you might end up looking at buildings and trying to figure out how you might stack them to create lines just like in Tetris.
The idea behind the Tetris effect is simple - what we spend a lot of time doing ends up impacting what we spend a lot of time thinking about. It's the idea that as our brain practices the same skills, over and over again, it gets better at that skill. Usually, when it goes to thinking, the skill we practice the most is negative thinking. Someone who is accustomed to thinking negatively, will continue to think negatively. This is important to recognize because it helps us understand and empathize with people who seem grumpy and negative. It's not that they necessarily want to be grumpy and negative, it's just that their brains have gotten so used to spotting the negative that they have become really good at that skill.
The problem of course with this style of thinking is that we know that the brain can only handle a certain amount of information at one time. If we spend that time focusing on the negative things, we can miss out on seeing the positive things. If you don't focus on the positive, how are you expected to be able to see it? How can you be expected to see the opportunities for growth and possibilities when your brain has been trained to only see the negative things? There is a large cost to this style of negative thinking. It undercuts our creativity, it raises our stress levels, lowers our motivation, and lowers our ability to accomplish goals. It ends up turning into a self fulfilling prophecy where we only see negative things in our lives and end up creating opportunities for ourselves that support the negative things rather than opportunities that challenge it.
Another word for this is intentional blindness. Intentional blindness is something our brains do to try to understand the world around us. It enables us to be hyper focused on certain things in our lives while being able to fully ignore others. Have you ever walked into a pole while texting? Or missed your stop on the train because you were reading your book? These are all examples of intentional blindness. Your brain processed the information it thought was most valuable to you (the activity that you were most focused on) while ignoring other bits of information. The same is true with our thinking. Our brain picks up on the information in our environment that supports our current thinking and ignores the other information that contradicts it.
So, imagine if instead of focusing on negative thoughts, you could focus on the positive things. Imagine what your brain would pick up and what you would start to see if you tried to focus your attention on the positive things. Accoring to Shawn Achor, three big things happen when you start to focus on the positive things:
Happiness - The more you pick up on the positive around you, the better you'll feel.
Gratitude - The more opportunities for positive that you see, the more grateful you will become.
Optimism - The more that you expect this trend to continue, the more optimistic you will become.
Optimism is an amazing quality to have. People who have more optimism put more effort into attaining their goals, stay more engaged in the face of difficulty, rise above obstacles more easily, cope better with high stress situations, and are better able to maintain high levels of well-being during times of hardship. People who have optimism in their lives also engage in something called predictive encoding. Predictive encoding means that since your brain is expecting a positive outcome, it looks for positive outcomes, and will recognize those positive outcomes as they arise. So how can we train our brains to become more positive and to notice the positive things in our lives more?
Activities for getting stuck in a Positive Thinking Effect
There are a few activities that you can try out in order to get stuck in a positive thinking effect rather than a negative one. The first option is a gratitude exercise where you list three things that you are grateful for each morning when you wake up. This forces your brain to review the last 24 hours of your life looking for successes. Over time, your brain will become more skilled at noticing the positives, focusing on possibilities for personal and professional growth, and seizing opportunities to act on. Since we can only focus on a limited amount of information in any given moment, this exercise forces out the small annoyances and frustrations that occur in everyday life. Over time, the better that you get at scanning for good, the more good you will see.
Another alternative of this exercise is to journal. However, these journal entries are slightly different from the ones that we are used to. The idea of journaling in positive psychology is to spend time each day writing down the positive experiences that you have had. It gives you time to reflect on what has gone well that day and allows you to once again train your brain on noticing the good parts of life.
Tips and Tricks to Increase Consistency:
One of the hardest things is to do these exercises consistently. We tend to do really well the first few days of trying something new and after that we start to struggle with consistency. We lose focus or drive and end up stopping the exercise before it has a chance to become part of our daily routine. Here are a few tips on improving consistency:
Practice them daily
Do it at the same time each day
Set a reminder on your phone
Have your items (e.g. journal and pen) ready and handy
Involve others to increase accountability and spread the positivity
Rose Tinted Glasses:
Something that usually comes up at this point is the question "but what happens if something bad happens? I can't just ignore that!". You are right. Truly terrible events need to be acknowledged and processed. It is possible to overdue positive psychology and be in a place where all of a sudden you don't notice the truly terrible things. This is why Shawn Achor recommends wearing rose tinted glasses rather than rose colored glasses. What he means by that is that we should use positive psychology and it's skills throughout the day to help us notice the positive things in our lives and not notice the small mundane annoyances / frustrations. However, we still need to be able to notice the truly terrible things in our lives such as major illnesses, job loss, relationship breakup, etc... Wearing rose tinted glasses allows for those truly terrible things to still shine through and allows us to still see those parts of our lives that need to be addressed.
Please feel free to reach out if you would like support in improving your positive thinking. Most of what you have read about in this blog was derived from the book The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor. We have no personal or professional stake in this book; it's just a good book. Since striving for happiness is a strong human need we will be focusing this month's blogs on how to achieve it. We continue to accept new clients from Illinois (Chicago), California (Los Angeles, San Diego, Orange County, Santa Barbara, San Francisco, Sacramento), and outside of the USA (Canada, Australia, New Zealand, England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, United Kingdom, Germany, France, Spain, Mexico).
Written by Linda Meier Abdelsayed, LMFT
Originally published 07/24/2018